Buying Art for the First Time | An Essential Guide to Viennese Etiquette

Metropole and viennacontemporary join forces to help new buyers navigate the local art scene in style

When you visit the sauna for the first time, you may feel a bit unsure of yourself –where do you look, when can you talk? Well, the art market may have (slightly) less nudity, but can feel just as daunting for people who dream of their own collection but don’t know quite how to begin. Fortunately, Metropole and viennacontemporary have compiled a list of essentials to make the process of buying art more transparent for people who are new to the scene.

Sharing their insights are viennacontemporary’s Head of VIP, Katharina Abpurg, and arts project manager Pedro de Melo. Abpurg has worked with Christine König Galerie, Sotheby’s and Galerie Krinzinger and travels the world representing viennacontemporary. De Melo has worked as a curator and project manager with Improper Walls, HilgerNEXT and arts manager Vera Steinkellner, in addition to being a passionate art collector himself.

Both insist that it’s crucial to just start somewhere, to buy what you like and to not be afraid, but if you’re looking for more specific pointers, read on…

1. Know where to look

Before you can buy what you like, you have to find out exactly what that is. Vienna is chock full of small galleries and off-spaces in cultural hotspots like Gumpendorferstraße or near Museumsquartier, so look around! Gallerists enjoy discussing art and will be happy to answer your questions – many of them even host events to inform budding aficionados. You can also broaden your knowledge by taking courses online at Sotheby’s or Christie’s, or visit the monthly Critical Matters event hosted by the University of Vienna. While you’re at it, follow Collectors Agenda on Facebook and see for yourself that art collectors are people too. Abpurg also advises you narrow things down: Are you looking for a painting, a photograph, a drawing or a sculpture?

Lukasz Korolkiewicz, Anima, 1993, Courtesy of the artist and Monopol Gallery

2. Know your budget

… and make sure your gallerist does, too. Once you’re ready to take the plunge, know what you can afford. If your budget is small – say €300 – look into limited edition prints, signed and numbered by the artist. If your budget is closer to €3000, you might be able to buy an original from an emerging artist. If you have €30,000 to spend, a small piece by a known or “branded” artist could be yours.

And while we’re getting into the nitty gritty: don’t be afraid to bargain a bit. If you show genuine interest in the work, a 5 to 10% discount is all part of the game – regardless of whether you know the director of the gallery. If you do establish a relationship over time, they may also be flexible when it comes to paying in installments. And remember: there is no shame in asking the price of a work and realizing it’s way beyond what you can afford!

3. Know what to look for

“The red dot” is currently a contested topic in the art world: It used to be placed next to a painting still on display but already sold, but many galleries have abolished the practice as it “takes the magic away,” according to de Melo. Nowadays, just ask the gallery director: if a work is sold, they’ll happily show you something similar.

If you’ve found something to your liking, pay attention to the framing: Thicker frames last longer. If the artwork uses unconventional materials, ask how long they are expected to last, and whether the gallery provides any guarantees should the artwork disintegrate over time.

Once the deal is done and you’ve made your first purchase, don’t expect to walk out with your prize right away. It’s part of the service to have the work delivered – usually after the exhibition is over.

Yigal Ozeri, Untitled (Olya), 2017, Courtesy Galerie Andreas Binder

4. Get your stuff insured – or not

You don’t necessarily need to get specific “art insurance” for your first or second small purchase. Artworks are utilitarian in their own way, and fairly resilient too. However, if you’re starting a more valuable collection and want to keep it safe for generations to come, try Aon Fine Art.

5. Avoid auctions, but use Instagram

As a first time buyer, de Melo feels auction houses are best avoided, as they deal primarily with the secondary market – meaning they hardly ever sell brand new works. They use specialized jargon and terminology, and experienced buyers use little tricks of the trade to get the best deals. Instead, both experts recommend Instagram as a starting point: follow galleries, artists, collectors, and museums to train your eye and develop a feel for what you like. Just don’t get conned into buying something online which you haven’t seen.

6. Attend art fairs

Art is like wine: the more you taste, the more you know what you like. And art fairs are veritable buffets, with vast numbers of artworks in one place. Abpurg recommends visiting on day two, when the excitement of the opening has died down. Talk to gallerists and ask questions, because “to question what you see allows you to understand it.” If you’re planning to buy at an art fair, keep in mind that because of the logistics involved in setting up a stand, prices will be slightly higher.

7. Visit openings

The rules of behavior at exhibition openings aren’t as strict as they used to be. Just watch your alcohol consumption and read the information about the artist provided by the gallery, and you’ll already know more than most! At openings, the artists themselves are great conversation partners who are not at all involved with the financial part of the scene. You can find all opening dates in Vienna at under Vienna Weekly.

8. Take advantage of Vienna’s attitude

De Melo feels that although the Viennese are very cultured, they mostly enjoy modern art: Klimt, Schiele, Warhol… Therefore, contemporary galleries, off-spaces and artists are a “treasure trove waiting to be found,” and a land of opportunity for new collectors. He suggests sticking to tangible art at first, but if you’re brave enough to go after digital art, you could be a true pioneer.

9. Last but not least, avoid …

– … drinking too much at an opening, or only going for the free drinks
– … making an insultingly low offer when bargaining
– … trashing an artwork to get a better deal
– … buying directly from artists who are represented by galleries
– … “flipping:” buying now to sell at a profit tomorrow

Be ready to learn – often from mistakes – as no one is born knowing everything. De Melo: “If you want to be good at something, the first thing you have to do is be willing to be bad at it.” Art, it seems, is just like life.

Leave a Comment